Devran: Selahattin Demirtaş and stubborn hope

When a simple-looking painting, sentence, song lyric, melody, or photograph gently brushes over a wound that will never heal, our understanding of it may come as a jolt.

Ever since I saw that hand reaching out from the iron cage in the prison window, I’ve been thinking about the nature of hope and what gives us our hopes and expectations, both remembered and forgotten.

In a picture that imparts desire through simple lines, there is a prisoner whose face I can’t see—just a hand reaching through the bars pouring clear, blue water from a kettle, which flows out of a hole in the prison wall into the greenery, flowers, rivers, butterflies, birds, sun, and sky outside, blessing everything it touches.

Artist Murat İpek shows us Selahattin Demirtaş reaching his arm out to the world, his existence and pain forgotten, his hope expressed powerfully through his humility. The drawing is childish and simple, touching a thing we lack and have forgotten.

When readers discovered Demirtaş’s first storybook Seher (Twilight), he was in prison. At a book fair, some author friends and I signed his book in his name. It was an unforgettable book-signing for me. Later, I wrote to him so he could see that day.

If they were even able to get the letter to him, rather than tell him that 150,000 copies of his book had been printed within a few months, I wrote to him about how the readers of his stories came together so that he could read the letter in prison and feel the magic of his words, for which he’ll never see any reward.

Demirtaş read that letter, and his reply and greetings reached me. He felt it; he understood. He valued every moment of reaching people with his struggle and his words. That’s how I understood it.

Today, when reading his new stories (he is still in prison), I noticed how this feeling had strengthened and grown.

The writing sometimes reaches out with a compassionate hand so that no abandoned pain is left alone. The meanings of his words reach those who need it, reminding them that despite everything, it’s worth it to be alive. When the stories, tucked away in their little corners, go off on their meandering journey, they are like the smile of a beautiful woman who places a veil over death—a warm breeze from far away. Evil doesn’t disappear, but hope abounds.

Demirtaş’s second book from prison is called Devran. The first story’s secret is its hero. It’s called “Gün Olur Devran Döner.”

Devran, from the Arabic word meaning “to circulate”, means fate, fortune, or era. The Turkish saying gün olur devran döner is similar to “every cloud has a silver lining;” it says that those who face injustice will one day win their rights and that their uncertain futures, their lives, and their fates are changeable.

The totality of emotion that infuses the entire book is nourished by the power of hope and far from the shallowness of any reckoning; it is imbued with optimism, despite everything. The expressions of listening, understanding, and seeing are a meaningful response that includes joy and sorrow in a merciful embrace.

With a different narrator for each story, a different facet of the coarseness of time and the healing of the soul is seen. The states of humanity do not repeat themselves in the usual way. The book shows the thin beams of light the eye cannot help but locate in the dark, along with the possibility for change.

In the first story, we follow Salim the Prosecutor as he sets off for a mountain village. His memories of his son’s death in an accident bring back the feelings of shame and guilt that he has supressed for years. The common features of the stories in this second book are the rich narratives and the tendency to give detailed descriptions of visual memory.

Twenty-five years later, Salim is about to face up to himself and his conscience as he returns to the village where he first worked as a prosecutor in his youth. He points out the things he sees along the road, its unchanging geography:

“He thought about the things he had done for the state, for the nation, and what, in fact, he had been trying to do. When he looked carefully, he noticed the place off to one side where the public health clinic used to be—a somewhat nicer hospital had been built there. Next to that was what looked like the Gendarmerie headquarters, with ‘Every Turk is born a soldier’ written on the entrance.”

In the house in the mountain village where the prosecutor was a guest, he looked at the things he’d buried from his past, the nightmare he’d painstakingly covered up:

“That powerful prosecutor, that brave attorney, was facing the photograph of Devran, listening like a witness, unable to move.” The narrator recounts how Hasan Sürgücü, the father of the boy tortured to death, had sought justice for 25 years, the decisions not to prosecute, the news in the papers about it, and the silence. The story goes on to describe the reason for the son's death, and how in its aftermath the prosecutor was among those the father filed a complaint against.

After a while, Salim became a chief prosecutor and from there, he was appointed to the top prosecutor’s office. Throughout his life he continued to reap the rewards of the state; he became a lawyer when he retired and was much sought after for public tender cases, from which he became quite wealthy. None of this will seem strange to readers in Turkey.

“Devran” is an unsettling story that shows the varying distances between humans as social beings, their individual conscience and sense of justice. The story’s events parallel events we have witnessed for years; it takes its power not from the commonplace but from where it resolves its dramatic tension.

As we pass through this world, despite the pain felt by “others” seeking their rights—moral, legal, and human—there is the desire to remain human. The last story, “İnsan Kalabılmek” (Remaining Human), closes the book’s own wheel of fortune.

In John Berger’s novel From A to X, made up of letters written to prisoners, A’ida writes to her jailed lover, “There’s such a difference between hope and expectations. At first I believed it was a question of duration, that hope was awaiting something further away. I was wrong. Expectation belongs to the body, whereas hope belongs to the soul. That’s the difference. The two converse and excite or console each other but the dream of each one is different.”

Even in the darkest of these stories, there is an attitude of rejecting the mechanisms of control, repression, and cruelty with a stubborn hope. These stories were written in a cell under “state supervision” from behind the inevitable high stone walls; far from hopelessness, they make the reader smile by offering a dream of a joyful, humble, and just life.

As I read Demirtaş’s stories, at times gut-wrenching and at times amusing, I asked myself whether his writing would still be dominated with this bitter irony if he were free. I think that it probably would. Regardless of his circumstances, he shows himself as genuine, brave, and sincere. In this sense, the intense interest in his books is not directly or solely related to his political identity.

It is natural that Demirtaş would want to write the stories he’s heard, given life as a lawyer, human rights defender, politician, and ordinary citizen, along with all that he witnessed in his travels. Softening life’s harsh realities by infusing them with his special type of subtle humour is the well-known and oft-seen face of his entire identity.

An example of his approach to revolutionaries comes in the story “Kapkaç” (Thief):

“It’s like I can’t get up and go somehow. My sense is that perhaps I’m spending time with Yelda so that we can be friends. They’re poor because they’re revolutionaries or they’ve become revolutionaries because they were already poor—I don’t know for sure, but I’m sure there’s poverty involved.”

The stories show different facets of destitution, struggle, the shadow of silent sorrow of those thrust into desperation, the repressed pangs of love, fleeting joy, regret, missed opportunities, the indifference towards society’s problems, the crime organizations that infiltrate the system, the way seasonal workers live, criticisms of modern life vs. the middle class and morality vs. capitalism, acceptance of the inevitability of death, the customs for mourning, the true relationship between faith and justice, the ethics of keeping secrets, and ideas about purification and goodness.

In “Direnmek Güzel’dir” (Resistance is Beautiful), a physics teacher works as a service bus driver because he could not get appointed to a teaching post. Because he’s frightened of the state’s cruelty, he begins his story of a failed love with this question:

“There may not be many things you do in your life that you’re proud of. Knowing that, even if it bothers you when you think about it, at least won’t give you grief. But if you go the opposite way and think of things you’ve done that you’re ashamed of, what will happen then?”

I believe that from these stories that touch on society’s deep wounds, the first and foremost question is whether they can be evaluated in terms of our daily lives. When we meet with “organized evil” every day, the antidote to our shame is asking this question relentlessly and endlessly; perhaps hope is an antidote as well.

It is not easy to struggle to remain human day after day amid the pain that is difficult to speak about, the unpredictable storms, the merciless games of fate, or the decay in which we willingly tear to pieces our right to a just and equal life. It is not just being alive; I think it is possible that what we want and deserve is a human life of hope.

The story “İnsan Kalabılmek” is the only one in the book that touches on recent tragedy and current events in a direct and concrete way. It tells the story of Cemşid, who moved from Cizre (in southeastern Turkey) to Bodrum for work; his friends were killed during the 24-hour curfew and ongoing security operations against Kurdish militants in his hometown, and his story brings to mind a painful truth:

“Some people were trapped in small spaces in apartment buildings and burned; their bodies were unrecognizable, and only after waiting for months for DNA tests to prove their identities were families able to lay their children to rest. In this way, death became ordinary—the destruction, the slaughter just became a part of everyday life. More painful than death was the silence of the rest of the country and the world.”

Despite the silence of the entire world, the author finds a simple, existential truth in the solution:

“Besides being a demi-god or being oppressed, there was being human, being able to remain human. Those who didn’t burn in the basement, those whose hearts didn’t ache for the ones that burned in the basement, can they be called human? He swam to the shore with greater confidence; even though the answer had been the same for thousands of years, the problem was remaining human even if his body was burned in a basement in Cizre.”

It’s not a coincidence that the book ends with this story. Even the words are tired. It’s as though the author wants to stop here and take a deep breath before writing the next story or book.

Despite its sharp irony, Devran is a harsh but easy read.

The fragile hope reminds the reader that unprejudiced solidarity is possible, writing and art can sustain the resistance, and each new day can be a blessing. It’s a thoughtful point of view, for better or worse, of the transformation of hope into fertile soil.

In this sense, I suppose that writing is a way of “healing” himself. The Russian author Andrei Platonov describes this type of happiness in one story:

“In fact, in the happiness a person wants solely for himself, there is a vulgar and makeshift thing; with human sacrifice, it would be human to carry out one’s duty against the public that bores him; the greatest satisfaction that one can attain is true, eternal happiness that cannot be destroyed by any disaster, pain, or desperation.”

The dedication Selahattin Demirtaş wrote for this book shows he comes from a steadfast tradition that risks paying the price in the pursuit of rights, the law, and justice:

“To two big-hearted labourers who spent seventeen years of their lives following their children to prison and to courthouse doors: my mother and father, with gratitude…”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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